Monday, November 26, 2007

Billion Dollar Babies

Ben Stein has some querulous words for some of his loafing acquaintances.

As I near my 63rd birthday, I'm stunned at a phenomenon I observe among a number of my friends: They don't know how to work.

That is, they literally don't know how to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, get dressed, and then do a day's work for a day's pay.

One of them, who used to be dabble as a consultant at an advertising agency, quit a few years ago with a modest inheritance, and now has simply no idea of what to do to feed his family. Did I mention that he ran through his money in about 18 months?

Another friend, who was my college roommate and is one of the smartest, most well-read and witty writers I've ever met, hasn't held a regular job in his entire life -- and he's the same age I am. He has a well-to-do wife, luckily for him, and he teaches when he feels like it in local community colleges on a volunteer basis. What he would do if he had to earn a living I have no clue.

Yet another one is a former salesman of Internet ads. He's terribly smart, good-natured, and pleasant, but he simply has no clue of how to make a living aside from sales of somewhat dicey goods online, so now he just hangs out. How he pays the rent is beyond me.

It goes on like that. Stein, cheerfully disingenuous as ever, seems truly flummoxed that these folks are trying to hump a grift, rather than, say, use government connections, or write columns, or become well-known for having an amusing vocal intonation. Stein himself has done a variety of things over the years, to be sure, but most of those things have come from capitalizing on his name recognition. How did he achieve that name recognition? Luck. And that's what his "friends" are hoping for, to parlay something they like to do into something they can make money doing.

Americans have funny notions about what constitutes a work ethic anyway. We like our blue-collar class to grind themselves to a hardy nub and do what they're told, our low-level white-collar workers to be just worried enough about replacement or obsolescence that they don't squawk about health care, vacations, or pay, and our executives to be grossly overcompensated, showered with so much Scrooge McDuck pelf that they have to waddle sideways out of the boardroom under the weight of their golden parachutes.

We watch men in corporate uniforms strut around a baseball diamond for $25 million a year, football and basketball players hawking everything under the sun, while our legislators have given themselves more in raises in the past decade than the average American makes. People whose only actual skill is being related to the right person get all sorts of perks that the hardest, most diligent worker you can find will never even get a whiff of.

Given all that, why the fuck would anyone want to work? What's the incentive? Hell, Stein does stuff, but none of it's "work", and I'm sure he'd admit as much. He's never had a straight-up eight-to-five to trudge through, day after soul-deadening day with no opportunities in sight, and he's got no right to lecture people who have managed to find a way around being disaffected wage slaves.

Don't get me wrong -- I spent ten years as a professional and semi-pro musician, and I've met my share of truly lazy motherfuckers. But I think most people are just trying to find a way to get by, in the face of stagnant wages and rising costs. It's very off-putting to watch people with gravy jobs beat on the proles about their laziness.

On a day where the Dow dropped over 1.8% (and NASDAQ and the S&P 500 each lost well over 2%), it begs the question about what defines "work". (And it's not for nothing that American and European stock exchanges took the hit, while the Hang Seng exchange went up 4% -- and is up over a third just in the past six months. The Euros are carrying our CDO scrip, and log-rolling a cascading series of billion-dollar bailouts. The Chinese, conversely, are financing our debt, and slowly monetizing and re-apportioning it so as to not get dragged down with us.)

But none of that CDO shit is "work" either, not as Stein seems to define it. These guys are bookies, pure and simple, creating fungible assets out of fiat value. And while there is some skill involved in finding a statistical regression analysis that will make your high-roller customers want to plop six or seven figures into a bundled derivative put option, it's the same skill the guy on the street-corner with his three-card monte game has -- separating suckers from their money.

The difference here is that when the CDO grift finally goes south, it's considered Too Big To Fail, so the taxpayers -- the people who actually engage in the noble daily endeavors Stein so wistfully praises -- have to bail all the players out, starting with the grifters at the top.

I see enough of what Stein is talking about to know that he's not exactly wrong -- there are a lot of people whose work ethic plain blows. They don't show up to work on time, or they're hungover, or they don't pay attention to what they're doing.

If they keep up that kind of performance, they could be preznit someday.

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